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Animism: Notes on an Exhibition


The exhibition Animism sets out to provide a different context for reflecting on an old topic in the theory of art, one that has considerable reverberations in the present: the question of animation. Rather than investigating the effect of animation merely within the registers of aesthetics—for instance, by presenting a collection of artworks exemplifying different ways of achieving the effect of life or the lifelike within a field demarcated by the dialectics of movement and stasis—this exhibition tackles the unquestioned backdrop against which the aesthetic discussion of such effects normally takes place. This backdrop is usually taken for granted or carefully kept at a distance, but the works in this exhibition seek to bring it into the light. While the evocation of life is a well-known effect in animated cartoons and digital animations, and in more delicate ways, in painting and sculpture, outside the territory of art and mass media animation has been a disputed problem—one that leads to core issues in current debates about modernity. When animation is taken outside the field of art, it turns into an ontological battleground. Far from being a matter of abstract considerations, this is a battleground at the frontier of colonial modernity, and in the context of contemporary politics and aesthetics, it concerns the urgent question of the transformability and negotiability of ontologies, where claims to reality and the ordering of the social world are at stake. On this battleground, the problem of animation was given the name “animism” by nineteenth century anthropologists aspiring to see their work incorporated into the ranks of science.

I should begin by mentioning the degree to which animism has continued to pose, despite all attempts at scientific explanation, a serious riddle to Western epistemologies, and also a provocation to our embodied everyday perception and rationality. That inanimate objects and things act, that they have designs on us, and that we are interpellated by them, is a quotidian reality that we all implicitly accept—just as we accept, and indeed are animated by, the very milieus and contexts in which we operate. But to acknowledge, articulate, and conceptualize this fact is apparently a wholly different issue, which is problematic on all levels. The provocation embedded in the notion of animism is that it demands us to confront just that. Imagining animism therefore takes on the shape of the extreme, such that animism assumes the form of a caricature-version of the reality we normally take for granted: If things become active, alive, or even person-like, where does this leave actual humans? Animism in this sense is greeted by the Western mindset as the threat that we must exchange positions, for now we can only imagine ourselves as annulled, in the role of the inert, passive stuff that was previously the thing-like “matter” out there. And the provocation reaches further. Its echoes can be heard in the question, “So, do you really believe?” For what is at stake here seems to be of a confessional nature, such that if one would dare to answer “yes,” one would no longer be an accepted member of the modern community.

This project does not intend to answer this question with either “no” or “yes.” Instead, it seeks to bypass the choice altogether and treat animism not as a matter of belief, but rather as a boundary-making practice. It seeks to shift the terms away from a contaminated terrain and uncover in this terrain a series of a priori choices embedded in the modern imaginary.

Indeed, the very mention of animism provokes immediate reactions of border-defense. A famous example of such a defense-reaction, on the level of affect and aesthetics, is the Freudian sensation of the “uncanny,” in which something is either more alive than it should be, or exposed as “merely” mechanical. In both cases, we reassert the “proper” boundary between self and world. The question of animation—what is endowed with life, the soul, and agency—seems inevitably and immediately to call for distinctions and boundaries: between animate and inanimate matter, primitive and civilized, subjective perception and objective qualities, the colloquial perception of the real and the merely fictive or imaginary, and last but not least, between interior self and exterior world. And it would indeed be presumptuous to demand that contemporary viewers abandon such distinctions altogether, and, for instance, take the aesthetic effect of a cartoon to be real life. In our everyday perception, there is nothing that we identify more readily as fictional and as make-believe. And the project does not issue such a demand, nor does it devote itself, in a fashionable way, to the hidden life of images and things. However, it is in the readiness with which such distinctions are made that it identifies a colonial mechanism deeply ingrained in our everyday perception and our capacity to make sense of the world. Hence, the project refrains from postulating a life of things or images, not because this would go too far, but because it would not go far enough. The Animism project was built upon the conviction that what must be mobilized are the very grounds on which such distinctions are made.

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